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A PHENOMENOLOGICAL DESCRIPTION OF EMPATHY
(As Presented in the Philosophy of Edith Stein)
A Thesis Project
the Faculty of the Department of Philosophy
San Jose State University
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
Edith Stein's work on the problem of Empathy overcomes Edmund Husserl's Solipsism. It also suggests a new approach to understanding intersubjectivity which has been considered one of the unresolved problems in modern phenomenology. For example, Husserl in the beginning of the Paris Lectures holds that in the realm of transcendental subjectivity we cannot communicate with others, because, by the methodology of bracketing necessary for certainty, we have become skeptics concerning the existence of other people and the real world. Indeed, given this process one cannot even be certain of self identity.
I certainly do not discover myself in the world, since I have altogether suspended judgment about the world. I am not the ego of an individual man. I am the ego in whose stream of consciousness the world itself-- including myself as object in it, a man who exists in the world--first acquires meaning and reality.1
Thus, on this point Husserl criticizes Descartes, who with the cogito2 would hold onto a concept of self. He believes that Descartes was right in bracketing out the entire world but thinks he did not go far enough. If Descartes had continued his method he might have reached the phenomenological reduction
1 Edmund Husserl, The Paris Lectures, Trans. Peter Koestenbaum (The Hague, 1967), p. 8.
2 The Latin verb cogito is used as both a noun and a verb often without quotation marks or underlining. In this paper I intend "the cogito" to mean Descartes' concept of a thinking thing used in the Meditations.
and found an entirely different "I". To use Husserl's words, Descartes would have discovered his true self.
Consequently for me there exists no I and there are no psychic actions, that is, psychic phenomena in the psychological sense. To myself I do not exist as a human being. . . . I have discovered that I alone am the pure ego, with pure existence and pure capacities. . . . Through this ego alone does the being of the world, and for that matter, any being whatsoever, make sense to me and has possible validity.3
Given this primordial state of phenomenology we are in the realm of a "transcendental-solipsistic science." Husserl holds that in order to develop to its highest and fullest, phenomenology must proceed from the lowest incomplete state of transcendental solipsism to transcendental intersubjectivity. Stein's work is a contribution and continuation to this end.
It is true that the greater part of Husserl's work deals with the solipsistic. Yet, this is not necessarily meant to be a criticism as Dr. Arturo Fallico recognizes:
That old bugaboo of philosophy known as solipsism consists of an accusation often leveled by one philosopher against the other's position, that the accused philosopher's consciousness is, in the theory he is expounding, the whole of reality, and that the external world (including other persons) is merely a representation of that consciousness, having no independent existence. In a way it is regrettable that solipsism has nearly always been used as an accusation and rarely, if ever, for the important existential element of truth it contains. For solipsism stands ever as an indispensable caution that the independent ontological status of the other whether thing or person, is no easily ascertainable matter; and it establishes the exact basis of moral responsibility.4
3 Husserl, p. 10.
4 Arturo B. Fallico, Art and Existentialism (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1962), pp. 164-65.
While Husserl did not go so far as to present a system of ethics or political philosophy, he did in the last part of the Paris Lectures make an attempt to account for intersubjectivity. He held that the universal triad of the cogito is affected at least indirectly by empathy.
In a certain sense the "I"-polarization is multiplied within the ego,indirectly, by empathy with certain confrontations which occur within the ego itself, and which are the reflections of other monads, with in turn, other "I"-poles. The "I" is not merely the pole of perspectives which come and go; every perspective leaves a residue in the "I", a tentative conviction.5
Edith Stein, was a private assistant and student of Husserl's who wrote her doctoral dissertation for him, On the Problem of Empathy, in 1916. 1 believe her work to be of great importance in establishing the transition from phenomenology to existentialism, and in providing a phenomenological explanation of intersubjectivity, she lays a corner stone for a modern philosophical treatment of ethics, law and political philosophy. Thus, in this paper I shall briefly present her notion of empathy and comment upon it.
Edith Stein's thesis begins by recognizing the historical treatment given in literature to empathy before her presentation. Examining the approaches taken by other scholars, she found that the epistemological, purely descriptive and genetic-psychological aspects of the problem were mixed together. Her thesis is an attempt to extract the basic problem so that a satisfactory solution might be found. "I recognized this basic problem to be the question of empathy as the perceiving (Erfahrung) of foreign subjects and their experience
__________5 Husserl, p. 28.
Thus, she separates her subject matter into three areas: I. The Essence of Acts of Empathy; II. The Constitution of the Psycho-physical Individual; and III. Empathy as the Comprehension of Mental Persons. I shall deal with each topic separately.
The Essence of Acts of Empathy
In answer to the epistemological question of how knowledge of empathy is possible in the most general sense, the methodology followed is the "phenomenological reduction." Stein begins her work in a highly advanced area of phenomenological epistemology. For Husserl, this kind of phenomenological reduction represents one of the last steps in his studies. "Before we can reach and recognize intersubjectivity, as transcendental we need a highly developed and concrete phenomenology."7 Therefore in this discussion basic concepts in Husserl's philosophy are assumed, and I shall proceed immediately to the heart of the material which is "to consider the phenomenon of givenness in and bv itself and to investigate its essence."8
Here we assume that foreign subjects and their experience are given.
6 Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy Trans. Waltraut Stein (The Hague, 1964), p. 3.
7 Husserl, p. 35.
8 Stein, P. 3.
Thus, the discussion begins in medias res. Using the method of the reduction we can bracket the existence of the world and even the subject experiencing it. With a skepticism more radical than Hume's we cast aside everything that can be doubted. And if the method is properly applied the results will be certain, and other investigators using the same method should arrive at the same conclusions.
Therefore, after excluding all that can be doubted, we must ask, what is left that is not subject to cancellation? What is the common material which is not the result but the foundation of all science? Stein states,
What I cannot exclude, what is not subject to doubt, is my experience of the thing (the perception, memory, or other kind of grasping) together with its correlate, the full "phenomenon of the thing" (the object given as the same in series of diverse perceptions or memories). This phenomenon retains its character and can be made into an object of consideration.9
As an example of how it is possible to cancel existence and yet retain perception Stein cites the case of hallucination. A person who hallucinates and is aware of his condition, can perceive things and yet suspend belief in them. He can even doubt whether he himself exists (his empirical ego). That also can be examined as another phenomenon. However, even in the case of hallucinations there is an ultimate subject that is doing the hallucinating. Husserl calls the ultimate subject the transcendental ego. This cannot be cancelled and is of necessity the unobserved observer underlying all experience. Stein puts it thus: "But 'I', the experiencing subject who considers the world and my own
9 Stein, p. 4.
person as phenomenon, 'I' am in experience and only in it, am just as indubitable and impossible to cancel as experience itself."10
Further, in the area of perception not only do we perceive physical bodies but other experiencing subjects. Yet, the knowledge of particular foreign consciousness is not infallible, as Descartes observed. We can be fooled.
So I may by chance look out of a window and notice some men passing in the street, at the sight of whom I do not fail to say that I see men, just as I say that I see wax; and nevertheless what do I see from this window, except hats and cloaks which might cover (ghosts, or) automata (which move only by, springs)?11
Because we are subject to such diverse deceptions in this area we are sometimes inclined to doubt "the possibility of knowledge in this domain at all. But phenomenon of foreign psychic life is indubitably there. "12
Husserl's method is first to ascertain what the phenomenology of perception is in general by ideational abstraction and then to analyze transcendental intersubjectivity.
All these data of foreign experience point back to the basic nature of acts in which foreign experience is grasped. We now want to designate these acts as empathy, regardless of all historical traditions attached to the word. To grasp and understand these acts in greatest essential generality will be our first undertaking.13
In order to best understand acts of empathy in their individuality, she compares them with memory expectation and imagination, which are other acts
10 Stein, p. 5.
11 Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Trans. Laurence J. LaFleur (New York, 1960), p. 31.
12 Stein, p. 5.
13 Stein, p. 5.
of pure consciousness. Central to understanding the notion empathy is the distinction between primordial and nonprimordial acts. In a primordial act the "I" has its object immediately before it.
Memory, expectation and imagination are non-primordial in that the "I" does not have its object before it immediately. "They only represent it,and this character of representation is an immanent, essential moment of these acts, not a sign from their objects."14
Although, as Hume noted, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between memory, expectation and imagination, the memory does have a particular property, "to preserve the original order and position of its ideas."15 In memory we are given representations of former actual experience, whereas, with imagination and expectation, we deal with experience that is unreal. For example, we may remember a past joy. The joy is present to the memory as a primordial representational act, but the content of the joy itself is non- primordial. It refers back to a past object. The "Now" of the joy is not present. (This does not mean that we can't have joy over our past joy--what Stein calls reiteration--but this is a different case than the one we are considering.)
"Accordingly, memory posits, and what is remembered has being."16
In consciousness the act of memory is carried out by a present
14 Stein, p. 8.
15 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford, 1975), p. 85.
16 Stein, p.8.
primordial "I" that intends a past experience, and, in "reliving" that experience, a past non-primordial "I" is presented. (I can remember my inner experience of joy, how I felt and how I was present to its object.)
Thus, the present "I" and the past "I" face each other as subject and object. They do not coincide, though there is a consciousness of sameness. But this is not a positive identification and, moreover, the distinction between the primordiall remembering "I" and the 'I" non-primordiall-, remembered persists.17
The memory as is commonly experienced does not provide certitude. In the time sequence there can be large gaps and the order that is present to the primordial "I" doesn't have to be linear. I think most often it is more of an order of quality or depth of impression as Hume held (more or less forceful) than it is a strictly temporal order.
"At the end process there is a new objectification. I now unite the past experience which first arose before me as a whole and which I took apart while projecting myself into it, in an 'appreceptive grip'."18
Expectation is parallel except that the experience is not yet realized and the primordial "I" intends toward a future unrealized object.
Imagination, or what is sometimes in the literature called fancy is even altogether free of any temporal distance. The primordial "I" experiences objects that do not possess bodies and are altogether unreal. For example, Hume noted there is no contradiction in the idea of a gold mountain. The imagination may take part of one concept and combine it with another. It is not limited by real possibilities. Imagined experiences are given to us as the
17 Stein, P. 9.
18 Stein, p. 9.
non-primordial form of present experience. The "I" doing the imagining is primordial while the "I" living in the imagination is non-primordial.
Also, in the case of empathy we are dealing with an act which is primordial as present experience though non-primordial in content. To give an example, a friend comes to me obviously in a state of grief and tells me that he has just lost his brother. At first what is given appears as an object before me. (The grieved appearance of the friend.) But as I try to empathize with the other person, to bring his mood to givenness to myself, Stein holds, 'I am now no longer turned to the content but to the object of it, am at the subject of the content in the original subjects place."19 And only after successfully executed clarification does the content again face me as object. In order for this object (another's grief) to pull my "I" into it, use may be made of memory, expectation or imagination. In this case the memory of the death of a close friend or the expectation of how one would feel if he lost his own brother.
Here I would hold that unless one has experienced a similar occurrence in his own life he cannot fully empathize with the other. What is given in outer perception (another's grief) just will not make any sense to someone who does not know what the presented data means. Of course through the use of imagination, one may more or less approximate another's mood. For example, if in my past life I've never known anyone close to me who has died, I still might be able to understand a little of what is given to the other person by having observed
19 Stein, p. 10.
how I felt when a distant acquaintance or even a pet died. Further the depth of the understanding will depend upon the sensitivity of the person doing the understanding. Thus, there can be varying degrees of empathy. Also empathy may, be more or less present to the experiencing "I". For example, I'm very much upset by the death of a parent, when a friend comes in, beaming, to tell me that he has just passed his finals. My grief at the time does not permit me to be joyful with him.
There is a conflict (again not real but phenomenal) involving two grades. The "I" living entirely in grief perhaps at first experiences empathy as a "background experience". This is comparable to peripheral areas of the visual field that are seen and yet are not intentional objects in the full sense, are not objects of actual attention. And now the "I" feels pulled toward two sides at once, both experiences claiming to be a "cogito" in a specific sense.20
In fact, the cogito is often pulled from one object to another so that most objects are more or less fully experienced. Further our own personality may not permit full empathy, or sometimes our profession can prevent its full realization. This notion of negative empathy (the blocking of empathic acts by something in my own person) is not, however, only to be seen as a negative value. A good doctor by his training and experience should be able to suppress being drawn into another's suffering so that he can best perform his medical duties. If however he does not allow himself to be moved in areas outside his professional world, we consider him callous and see this as a disvalue.
Returning to the first example, at this point let us consider the distinction
__________20 Stein, p. 15.
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